LAS VEGAS – Over dinner conversations, Frank Capece would warn his friend Tim Donaghy to slow down on the spending and ease back on his lavish lifestyle. Donaghy had a house off a country club in suburban Philadelphia and treated himself to a fancy new BMW, and Capece, a New Jersey attorney, implored the NBA official to consider what it someday would cost to send his daughters to college.
"I would scold him about those tuition bills coming and the necessity to save money, and he kind of glossed over it," Capece said Friday afternoon. "I would get angry with him, angry like a friend does. The car, the house next to the golf course, it was all big bucks – even for an NBA ref. He really desired some of the better things in life.
"I don't think he was listening to my lectures."
A longtime courtside season ticket holder for the New Jersey Nets, Capece had developed an improbable friendship with Donaghy through years of game nights at the Meadowlands. Before Nets home games, they would grab dinner at a Bennigan's near the Northern Jersey arena. Sometimes, Donaghy would call him before working a New York Knicks game and they would meet in Manhattan for a meal.
Capece considered Donaghy a friend and insisted, "To say that he knew where to find a mobster, or make a bet, I find it very, very difficult to believe. I'm stunned."
"I mean, this guy was the quintessential yuppie," Capece added. "It doesn't jibe. Something is missing here to me."
So this yuppie, the son of a college basketball official, is suddenly the center of the biggest scandal in NBA history. Tim Donaghy, 40, is under federal investigation for allegedly betting on NBA games and possibly with organized crime figures to control point spreads of those games they had wagered on together.
As the story goes, law enforcement sources are saying, Donaghy had accrued gambling debts when mob associates strong-armed him into cooperating with a game-fixing scheme. A New York grand jury could bring charges within two weeks.
As one NBA elder said Friday, "This is as major as anything we've ever faced as a league. The integrity of our sport is at stake here."
Privately, NBA officials wish they could've seen a pattern within Donaghy's officiating to suggest that he could've been shaving points, but that hasn't been apparent to the naked eye. He consistently has been graded as one of the league's better officials, which is the reason he was assigned to five playoff games in the past two years.
NBA officials, sources said, are painstakingly studying tapes from the past two seasons under FBI suspicion (2005-06 and 2006-07). It is believed that more than a dozen games could've been deliberately affected by Donaghy's calls, games where he and the mob associates had bet thousands of dollars on the point spreads.
The fact that his performance reviews hadn't suffered these past two years reminded the league office how the manipulating of a game can be done in the most subtle of ways, without alarming even the most educated eyes.
"Remember," one league official said Friday, "the officials are graded nightly on the calls that they don't make, not just the ones they do."
This isn't the first time Donaghy has come under investigation within the NBA. Two years ago, a dispute with neighbors Peter and Lisa Mansueto in suburban Philadelphia caused the couple to contact the league office about Donaghy. Capece called it "a dispute over a tree," but the Mansuetos sued him for harassment.
Capece says he counseled Donaghy on the matter, and remembers that, "He was very concerned over NBA security becoming involved in it. He cared very much about his reputation. After all of that, he moved to (Bradenton) Florida."
Within the league, that reputation was originally tarnished with his handling of the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004. Along with his refereeing partners that night, Donaghy was criticized for letting the infamous game get out of control and turn into one of the darkest days in NBA history. A year earlier, Donaghy was threatened by Rasheed Wallace outside the Rose Garden arena in Portland in 2003, a loading dock incident that cost Wallace a seven-game suspension.
"A solid ref," one NBA general manger said Friday. "Some better, a few worse. But he would show you a temper now and then."
If Donaghy was considered a competent official, several sources described him as fairly unpopular with his peers, past and present. He was raised the son of a college referee and came out of Cardinal O'Hara High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Springfield that has produced four NBA officials through the years. From his Philly basketball roots to his peers in the NBA, Donaghy isn't described with much affection.
Now, suddenly, an anonymous 5-foot-8 referee figures to make himself one of the most infamous characters in NBA history.
"The picture isn't straight," his buddy Capece said. "I'm so perplexed by this. I mean, don't get the idea this guy was Leroy Brown with a big diamond on his finger, but he clearly enjoyed the finer things in life.
"Still, this, though? No. No way. I just don't see it."
Whatever he was chasing, whatever he so desperately wanted, his life is a shambles. And now, Tim Donaghy threatens to bring down the NBA with him.